If we can step away from Bobofest ’11 for a minute, there’s an area of the team that deserves more scrutiny than it’s getting.
Going into the season, Georgia’s special teams were expected to be a team strength. Several pundits described them as the best in the nation – and why not? Blair Walsh and Drew Butler had already received awards for their kicking prowess. Brandon Boykin was an electrifying kick returner. Branden Smith turned into one of the better punt returners in the conference. And the coverage teams ranked in the top two or three in the SEC.
Instead, 2011 brought a drop in performance on almost every front.
PUNT RETURNS AVG TD 2010 UGA 10.62 0 OPP 5.13 0 2011 UGA 6.68 0 OPP 16.09 2
Branden Smith was Georgia’s leading returner last season. His average yards per return was 14.3. This season’s leading returner, Brandon Boykin, averaged 6.77 yards per return. As for punt coverage, Georgia went from third to last in the SEC and was the only school to give up two touchdowns via punt returns.
The poor work of the return team obscured somewhat Drew Butler’s consistency. In fact, Butler improved from third in the conference in 2010 to second this season.
KICKOFF RETURNS AVG TD 2010 UGA 20.8 1 OPP 19.54 0 2011 UGA 22.4 0 OPP 23.47 2
Georgia’s average return improved slightly, but seemed less explosive. For whatever reason, opponents didn’t try to avoid Boykin nearly as much. Georgia had nine different players who fielded kickoffs in 2010. Only three did this season.
Kickoff coverage was disastrous. The Dawgs declined from second in the conference in 2010 to dead last this season in that department. The two touchdowns yielded was tops in the SEC.
PLACE KICKING FG% XP% 2010 UGA 83.3 97.9 OPP 70 97.1 2011 UGA 60.6 100 OPP 81.8 90.9
Nothing but ugly there. Georgia made 20 of 24 field goal attempts in 2010. This year, it was 20 of 33. That equates to a missed field goal per game.
The overall picture is disappointing, to say the least. Special teams cost the Dawgs the South Carolina game (keep in mind that these numbers don’t take into account Ingram’s touchdown on the fake punt, because that’s treated as a running play for statistical purposes), made several wins much closer affairs than they should have been and had a dramatic impact on the momentum in the SECCG.
Some of the shortcomings can be blamed on personnel. Walsh’s slump may seem inexplicable given his solid effort before this year, but it still happened. And the coaches let things stagger along on the coverage units until after the many coverage debacles we saw in Jacksonville. Some was strategic, though. In the wake of the South Carolina game, Georgia played more and more punt safe as the season went on. That certainly helped stop the fake punt problems, but it also limited the return game.
In any event, the staff has its work cut out for itself next season, as both Walsh and Butler will be replaced by either freshmen or walk-ons. I guess one way to look at the future is that it can’t get any worse than the present, but given the likely high expectations Georgia will have for next year, that’s hardly good enough.